Posted by: Linda Trunell | March 25, 2013

Say Thanks for the Growl



Max is a big, happy dog who loves people (especially kids) and other animals.  He has no prey drive and even likes cats.  He growls when we play tug with his big rope toy.  He also growls sometimes when he is in the house and hears an unfamiliar noise outside.  The growl will then change to the “alarm” bark.  I acknowledge the alarm and investigate the sound.  I tell him that everything is okay and give him the “quiet” cue.  Usually he stops barking and goes back to whatever he was doing.  If the sound is firecrackers, he runs to the door barking loudly.  He will stop the barking but continues to growl a bit longer.  He is telling me he really doesn’t feel comfortable with that noise going on outside. That growl is very different from the play growl. It sounds very scary and threatening.  It actually is comforting to me because it makes me feel protected.

Some dogs growl when a human or another dog approaches their food or toy.  They are guarding their resource.  Some dogs growl when on the leash (or being carried by their human) and another person or dog approaches.  They may be guarding their human or expressing fear because they feel threatened and cannot flee.

What do you do if your dog growls?  Do you yell at him or punish him?  I have seen people yell and hold their dog’s mouth closed when they are growling. Why would anyone do that?  A dog’s growl is a warning that he is stressed about something and he wants you to know about it.  Dr. Ian Dunbar has said that punishing the growl is like removing the ticker from a time bomb.  I think you should say thanks for the growl.

You should figure out why your dog is growling and remove him from the situation if possible.  If he is growling at you – stop whatever you are doing. Do not continue to expose him to whatever he is growling at and think that you can change his state of mind just because you make him stop growling.  If he is punished for growling he may stop but the next time he is in that situation he may just skip the growl and bite.

A study published in the journal Animal Behavior showed that domestic dogs have warning growls, guarding and play growls.  They may sound the same to the untrained human ear but they convey specific messages to other dogs.  The play growls may be shorter and higher than the low, guttural rumbling that conveys aggression.

Some aggression is fear-based so if your dog is growling because he’s afraid of an approaching stranger, or another dog, or a noisy kid and you yell at him or punish him he will be even more stressed.  You are his best friend and now you are turning on him!

Of course, proper socialization during the critical first 13 weeks of a puppy’s life teaches that humans and other dogs are good things and not to be feared and that humans provide food and toys so they do not need to guard.

Dogs who have not been socialized and have fears and guarding tendencies can benefit from progressive desensitization techniques.  They can learn to have confidence and not be fearful of people and other dogs.  It is sometimes a long process to change the dog’s state of mind but with patience and knowledge it can be done.  Every dog deserves to be confident and happy and to have the best life they can.

If a dog who was previously social starts to growl at people or other dogs, there may be a medical condition causing pain or discomfort so have your vet rule that out before you proceed with desensitization techniques.

For good information on desensitization and counter-conditioning I recommend books such as The Cautious Canine: How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D. and Help for Your Fearful Dog: A Step-by-Step Guide to Helping Your Dog Conquer His Fears by Nicole Wilde.  If you need help be sure to find a behaviorist or positive reinforcement trainer who is experienced with fearful dogs.

Here’s to being our dog’s best friend,



  1. I agree completely with your view!


    • Thank you, Victor. I wish that everyone would take the time to learn what their dog is telling them with their voice or body language.


  2. We were visiting family recently who had two young boys (3 and 4) who loved our dog. She was amazing with them, but occasionally, they got to be too much, jumping on her and whatnot, so she’d let out a low growl. Their mother, God bless her, would say to the boys, “That’s the dog’s way of saying ‘No thank you,’ so you have to leave her alone now.” Then, when the boys backed off, we’d take the dog to another room and close the door, so that she got a break, but also understood that growling at children was not okay (this was not punishment, just a time out). A weekend without incident, thanks to a smart mom and careful humans.


    • Smart mom, careful humans and good dog! If she had been punished before for growling she may have not growled but just snapped or bit! She growled to let everyone know she was stressed and by removing her from the kids you showed her that you understood. The time out was exactly the right thing to do – not a punishment at all but actually respecting her wishes and removing her from the kids. Unfortunately some people would have scolded or punished her for growling which would have been the worst thing to do. She may have stopped growling but would be even more stressed which could have led to a tragedy. You did the right thing and said “Thanks for the growl – we understand how you feel and we have your back.” Now that is being your dog’s best friend. Thank you for your comment.



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